Here’s a request to any pollsters out there: One bit of data that would be interesting to see is the percentage of the vaunted undecided vote that favors a much smaller federal government. The reasons neither John Kerry nor George W. Bush stir the passions of libertarian-leaning voters are numerous and familiar, and the dilemma this election poses for this voting bloc has stimulated considerable debate.
But after the hanging chads are cleared, it’s going to be either the Bush Republicans or the Kerry Democrats who are declared the victors. Neither is ideal, but which would allow for the least government growth?
Many principled opponents of big government take the counterintuitive position that it would be Kerry, assuming Republicans remained in control of Congress. In a political climate that finds both parties clamoring for new laws, regulations, and budget-busting spending programs, the argument is that placing different parties in control of the executive and legislative branches can curb the worst excesses of each side.
The Cato Institute’s William Niskanen has found that since the Eisenhower administration, divided government has usually meant slower federal spending growth. Back in the heady days of the Dean campaign, Reason magazine’s Julian Sanchez counseled readers to put their faith in checks and balances above their fear of liberal Democrats: “Because libertarians shouldn’t be distracted by what policies the president, deep down, really wants. They should care about what he can get.”
Whenever Democrats enter the White House, congressional Republicans suddenly rediscover their inner minarchist. Bill Clinton’s coexistence with a GOP Congress was a case study in how divided government can thwart statists’ designs. This arrangement produced the first balanced budget in almost 30 years and eventually record surpluses. Real nondefense spending increased at a lower annual rate under Clinton than during Bush’s first term.
LEAVE IT TO THE Economist to throw cold water on the gridlock versus big government scenario. The Lexington column of October 23 quotes wonks from Harvard and the Brookings Institution who suggest there was more to the relative fiscal responsibility of the mid-to-late 1990s than divided government. The post-Cold War peace dividend, Ross Perot and sound budget-control legislation were all given credit for the turn away from deficit spending, with Brookings’ Sarah Binder arguing that deficit figures since World War II don’t support the relationship between divided government and budgetary discipline.
Binder’s criteria for evaluating the impact of divided government is different from Niskanen’s and probably less relevant if you believe in limiting government as a pro-liberty end in itself rather than simply to ensure that the books are balanced. But there are other reasons to note that the stars were aligned for economic conservatives during the Clinton years in ways that are not likely to be replicated during a Kerry administration.
Almost a decade ago, Congress was dominated by Newt Gingrich’s Republican “revolutionaries.” Back then, instead of authorizing massive new prescription-drug programs the GOP majority courageously — and at a high political price in the next round of congressional elections — tried to limit the growth of Medicare spending. (The Republicans had earlier sunk Clinton’s health plan and pared back his tax increase as an aggressive minority.) Famed tax collector for the welfare state Bob Dole had to burnish his small-government credentials in order to run for the GOP presidential nomination in 1996 against the likes of Phil Gramm, a year when even Arlen Specter presented himself as a flat-taxer and government-cutter. As Anne Applebaum recently pointed out in the Washington Post, it all seems so distant now. This is a different Republican Congress than Newt’s 104th.
We also had in Bill Clinton a Democrat who understood that he needed to make his party safe for the middle class again, a Democratic Leadership Council veteran who wanted to be anti-deficit and pro-business. His treasury secretaries, such as Lloyd Bentsen and Robert Rubin, were among the least liberal members of his Cabinet and he was willing to sign things like welfare reform and recite the right slogans ending the era of big government. He was in many respects a different kind of Democrat than Kerry.
FINALLY, GRIDLOCK CAN BE as effective at stymieing measures that limit government as those that expand it. This was evident in the 1995 Medicare reforms and other spending cuts, as well as several large tax-cut packages prior to 2001. There are far fewer comparable proposals on the table today, but expanded medical savings accounts and free-market reform of Social Security at least have the potential to improve prospects for limiting government later. And some of the Bush tax cuts — including the controversial reduction in the top marginal income tax rate — are still scheduled to expire. With divided government, Congress would have to pass legislation extending them by a big enough margin to override a President Kerry’s veto.
Of course, with politicians advocating government restraint in short supply and the next four years’ political conditions uncertain, arguments on both sides of this debate amount to inconclusive speculation. We are fortunate that the Framers built as many firm checks on the political class into the Constitution as they did. But there’s no substitute for elected officials actually inclined to respect them.
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